"Why are people so mean?" seems to be a plaintive cry across the internet. Although the issue may be more prevalent online due to the anonymity and accessibility, it is by no means limited to the online community. Yet, other people's “meanness” impacts us more than it really needs to. The more that people can recognize that the meanness they experience from others is either unintentional or is more about the mean person rather than about them, the less they personalize the meanness and the less impact it has on them.
Fran focused on doing a good job at work and because she tended to not spend much time chatting with her co-workers she tended to accomplish a great deal. In fact, it was apparent to everyone that she was able to complete more tasks than her co-workers who spent a great deal of time on their phones, playing on the internet, and talking with one another. One day, one of her co-workers came out of the supervisor's office and verbally attacked Fran: “I just got in trouble and it's all your fault! You make everyone else look bad by being such a brown-noser.” Fran, shocked and hurt, felt bad about herself because someone was angry with her.
Obviously, Fran hadn't done anything wrong. The problem in this situation was the co-worker who was directing her anger at Fran rather than taking responsibility for her own behavior. This misdirected self-protective behavior often occurs when someone has problems with insecurity which frequently leads to jealousy and blame.
However, even though Fran wasn't wrong, she still suffered the consequences of the co-worker's wrath. In fact, this is the purpose of such behavior, by blaming the problem on someone else and causing them to feel bad, the co-worker could feel better.
I don't believe most people are mean people. However, under the right circumstances, most people can be mean. For example, about 50 years ago Milgram conducted his famous “obedience” studies which involved telling the subject that a person in the next room was attached to a machine that delivered electric shock (unknown to the subject, the device was not actually attached). The subject was to ask this person questions and to deliver a shock by flipping a switch on the machine in front of them. The device had a dial on it clearly labeled from mild to dangerous. The researcher told the subject to increase the amount of shock with each wrong answer.
Although most people deny that they would turn the dial to dangerous and shock someone when told to do so, Milgram found that nearly 70% of the subjects obeyed the researcher and increased the shock to the dangerous range even when they heard screaming, and finally silence, from the next room. This type of study is not allowed to be conducted today due to the potential psychological harm to the subject from knowing they could cause harm to another human being.
Most of you reading this are probably trying to rationalize right now why you would not be among that 70% or you are thinking that something must have been different about those people who were subjects in the study. However, the research and other similar research was conducted with different variations showing the same type of outcome.
I believe that this research shows what I stated earlier, that under the right circumstances most people can be mean. The circumstance in this research was the pressure to obey, the pressure to conform, the stress of the situation, and the fear of authority. These are only some of the circumstances that may contribute to people doing “mean” things even when they are not “mean” people.
Often there appears to be so many mean people in the world around us, because the behavior of mean people tends to be more noticeable. One reason for this is probably the way our brains are wired for survival. According to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain, we need to be especially observant of the negative things in our environment because those are the things that are most likely to harm us. As a result, those most likely to survive and pass their genes to the next generation were those who were particularly sensitive to danger in the environment.
Another reason mean people are more noticeable is that their behavior is often particularly offensive and hurtful. We are more likely to notice and dwell on the person who cut us off in traffic rather than the person who let us merge. The more malicious the behavior, the more likely we are to be distressed and to dwell on what occurred.
However, this supports my position that meanness isn't the norm. For instance, notice what stories make the news. The nature of news is that it is unusual or it has an extreme impact on people's lives. A good example is that the West Nile virus that had significantly fewer episodes and fatalities than the flu got much more media attention. Or a major airplane crash, because it is so rare, will get extensive coverage. And certainly, anything negative tends to generate more media focus than positive things. Therefore, since meanness gets our attention, I would propose that it is actually rarer than niceness but more noticeable.
Unfortunately, another aspect of meanness that makes it more visible is that it is often rewarded. Sometimes the reward can be tangible such as a ruthless businessman being rewarded by making more money. However, it can also be rewarded with attention or escalation of conflict. It varies with each person what sort of reward is meaningful, although for meanness to continue there must be some sort of reward to the perpetrator. We will examine this further as we look at the different reasons for meanness.
Although I tried to organize the types of reasons for being “mean” from unintentional to malicious, I recognize that a case can be made for maliciousness or unintentional meanness in almost any of the categories. However, I believe that, in general, the following categories represent a continuum of meanness from unintentional to malicious.
Unintentional meanness refers to behavior or statements that the recipient may perceive as mean but that weren't intended to be hurtful. Whereas malicious meanness is behavior or statements that have the purpose of hurting the recipient. The idea of a continuum is that most mean behavior is a mixture of intentionality. Also, much of intentional meanness may not be severe enough in its impact to be considered malicious. Therefore, malicious meanness for the purpose of this article and the categories I have created is considered both intended and extreme.
The following reasons for meanness are listed in order, to the best of my ability, from the unintentional situations that may be perceived as being mean, to the reactive situations in which people are mean, to the situations with malicious intentions.
Frequently people will perceive a behavior as mean when there was no intention to be hurtful. Instead, the behavior may be due to a lack of skills, a lack of knowledge, or a lack of awareness. It is important to be able to determine if this may be the case because there are many situations in which people appear mean for these reasons when they have no such intention. By understanding when this occurs you are able to eliminate these situations from your perception of the amount of “meanness” in the world around you and are less likely to be insulted.
1) Not Noticing. Sometimes others may be focused internally or on something else and don't notice your situation. For example, someone doesn't let you merge in traffic because their attention is focused on their companion and they don't notice that you want to merge. Certainly, you could make a case that they should be paying more attention in traffic. However, the evidence isn't available that they were being mean; instead they were unaware.
2) Cultural. Also, lack of awareness is often involved with cultural differences. For instance, a great deal of misunderstandings occur because of personal space. Research has shown that in the U.S. people stand about three to twelve feet away from one another unless they are romantically involved. Someone from another culture who stands much closer may be interpreted as intimidating or rude. By recognizing that people have different belief systems and behavior when interacting with others, we can understand that their behavior may not be “mean,” but has a different meaning in their culture.
3) Little Insight. Some people may have little insight or awareness of how they impact others. They might tend to be more concrete in their thought processes and don't realize their behavior may be hurtful or rude. For example, a simple question such as “How old are you?” may have much undercurrent of meaning. Some people are insulted by the question because they believe it implies they are old. Someone with little insight about others' feelings may not realize that they insulted someone.
1) Social Skills. Some people may have poor social skills. They may not have been taught the proper social skills or they may not have the experience with social interaction to have learned the skills. As a result, they may be awkward interacting with others. For instance, someone who is shy or who has Asperger's Syndrome may not make adequate eye contact. Some people may interpret this as lack of interest and be insulted.
Some people may not know certain skills such as solving problems assertively. When they are attempting to learn these skills they may not be able to find the right words or tone of voice that comes with more experience. When people are first learning these skills they may appear more aggressive than they intend.
2) Tone. Some people have difficulty in communication because they lack the skill of expressing the right tone. This can occur in spoken communication but especially is problematic with written communication. These days of the internet, email, and texting have led to numerous problems due to the fact that tone cannot be easily conveyed through these mediums. I have had clients read emails or texts to me they maintained were insulting; and certainly, when read with the tone of voice they used, they were insulting. However, when I read the emails out loud without the tone, the message was entirely different.
Another problem is that certain types of humor or sarcasm can be very difficult to use the right tone and can be easily misunderstood. For intance, I have a very dry sense of humor that can work well with the proper non-verbals but is difficult to communicate in writing. I made the mistake when I first wrote articles for my website to write the way I communicate verbally. I made a joke that a reader mistook as an attempt to manipulate and was highly insulted. Therefore, when I write now I try to keep in mind that people from different backgrounds all over the world will be reading my articles. I can't prevent all misunderstandings but I can stay away from teasing and dry humor which can be easily misunderstood.
Communication involves at least two people. At any particular point, one person is conveying information and the other is receiving information. Problems can occur anywhere in the process. Miscommunication is when the individual conveying information makes errors in the process of communicating. Such errors can include inaccurate word choice, non-verbals that aren't in sync with the words used, not taking into consideration the audience and possible interpretations based on the characteristics of the listener. Misunderstanding is when the receiver of the information misinterprets the communication.
I worked with a husband and wife once who were aggressively arguing for a good part of the session. I noticed that both of them kept using the same word in their argument and I asked them each to define it for me. What they discovered is that they had totally different definitions of the word and by understanding the other's definition they were able to resolve the argument.
A common reason for misinterpretation are assumptions made by the listener. Sometimes these assumptions are as simple as believing they know what is going to be said and respond without listening thoroughly. Other times they may negatively interpret based upon their own biases or fears.
For instance, someone with social anxiety may interpret “I'm busy tomorrow and can't have lunch with you” as meaning “I don't like you.”
When someone engages in this type of assumption making, often referred to as “mind-reading” because they think they know what the other person is really thinking, they may sometimes react accordingly. For instance, the person who believes that the other person doesn't like him/her may tend to withdraw. Reactions due to these assumptions may lead to more negative consequences such as the other person perceiving him or her as unfriendly.
1) Directness. Some people have a very direct approach in their communication because they recognize that hinting or indirect communication often leads to misunderstandings. However, this direct approach can be interpreted by the recipient as being mean. For instance, directly stating “I'm not interested in dating you. Thank you anyway” can be viewed as mean when in reality it may be less hurtful than the indirect approach of not returning phone calls.
2) Indirectness. The indirect approach is often used because the communicator does not want to hurt the other person's feelings or wants to avoid conflict. However, this approach often leads to a great deal of miscommunication and often more hurt feelings in the long run.
3) Lack of Social Anxiety. Some people who lack social anxiety may be fairly blunt in their communications because such directness would not affect them negatively. Therefore, it doesn't occur to them that such communication may be offensive to some people. In fact, most of us communicate with others in a way that would be okay with us and don't consider that other people may respond better to a different approach. So, we treat others the way we would like to be treated rather than treating them the way they would like to be treated. And when we are really clueless we tell them the problem is that they are “too sensitive.”
Frequently we may perceive someone as being hurtful when they are actually trying to be helpful. This can occur, for example, when a parent is being over-protective or when a boss is reviewing someone's work excessively. It is easy to misinterpret these attempts to help as offensive or insulting. However, in these cases the individual is not intentionally hurtful and frequently the situation can be resolved by discussing the problem.
My husband is a person who wants to help others by giving advice and warning them about pitfalls in what they are attempting to do. Sometimes this can be quite annoying because it feels as if he is saying “I don't think you are capable” or “I don't trust you to consider this thoroughly” when he is actually intending to be helpful and to protect others from making mistakes and suffering the consequences. This used to cause a great deal of conflict for us until I realized that he has the good intentions of helping me and protecting me. In fact, he used to say “Listen to my intentions. Not my words.” Once I learned to do that much conflict was resolved.
More intentional, but not meant to hurt, is when someone believes they need to “toughen” someone up by being firm or even aggressive. This type of reasoning we need to be cautious about interpreting too innocuously because sometimes it is used as an excuse to be mean.
Sometimes people may believe that they have to act a certain way in order to achieve the outcome they want. For example, a boss may believe that he/she may have to be harsh and threatening for people to do their work. An old movie that shows this in action is “An Officer and a Gentleman” in which the Sargent believed that he had to break the recruit down so as to reshape him and help him.
In these situations, the intention may be good, but the process may be unnecessary as there may be other, less harsh ways, of obtaining the same outcome.
Some people have certain beliefs that have good intentions but may appear to be mean to others. One such belief is the desire to be completely honest and genuine in all interactions with others. This may sound nice on the surface but in actual practice it may appear to be mean. For example, “I think that dress makes you look fat” may be honest but it is likely to cause hurt feelings.
Many people who have this type of thinking don't realize they are making a choice in their manner of being honest. They think that being genuine is stating whatever thought occurs to them because otherwise they are pretending and false. However, this is not necessarily true because we have all sorts of thoughts that we may discard because they are not accurate. In addition, it is possible to be truthful without hurting other people's feelings. For instance, “I think this other dress is so much more attractive on you” can be honest as well but not hurtful.
The last several reasons for meanness that I described have primarily been unintentional and that often just understanding this can lead to less perception of meanness and less reactivity. However, self-protection and the next several reasons for meanness have some degree of intentionality although sometimes it may be subconscious. Even though some people in this category can be malicious in their meanness, most of the time they are desperately trying to protect themselves and survive albeit in a not very effective way.
The following is a list of reasons that people engage in self-protective meanness. Now please understand I'm not saying any of these reasons are right but by understanding the reasons we can reduce the impact on us as well as handle them more effectively. When dealing with these types of people, it is important to recognize that they are being mean because of their personal flaws, not because anything is wrong with you. For some of these people, the problem may be resolved by confronting the behavior.
Many, but not all, people with low self-esteem may act to protect their fragile self-esteem especially those who are unaware of their low self-esteem. They may be hurting emotionally, and unfortunately, an effective way to feel better is to feel superior to someone else. So there are a number of ways that this may occur.
1) Projection. Instead of admitting shortcomings, people may project them onto other people and accuse them of the behavior they don't acknowledge in themselves. For instance, someone who is dishonest may perceive everyone else as liars and thieves and accuse them of trying to take advantage of him or her.
2) Superiority Complex. Some people who are unable to acknowledge their low self-esteem may compensate by acting as if they are better than others. Their meanness may often be sarcastic or even direct put-downs such as “It's so obvious. Anyone with an ounce of brains would know that.”
3) Passive-aggressive Escalation. A method used for self-protection is passive-aggressive escalation. The purpose of this behavior is to aggress in such an indirect way that it causes the recipient to react and look like the bad guy. My article “Crazy-Makers: Dealing With Passive-Aggressive People” describes this process in more detail.
4) Jealousy. Some people with low self-esteem may engage in meanness out of jealousy. They tend to be insecure and might try to criticize others in an attempt to feel better about themselves. For instance, “She thinks she's so much better than us—look at how she flaunts herself with those expensive clothes.”
5) Rationalization. Attempts to defend the self-esteem by supplying logical reasons rather than acknowledging and taking responsibility for the real reason are known as rationalizations. For example, someone is fired and states “I didn't kiss up to the boss” rather than recognizing that poor performance was the cause.
Many people are uncomfortable with intense emotions and try to reduce the intensity in various ways. One way of doing this is intellectualization which is focusing on the less emotional internal processes rather than feeling the emotions. For example, someone focuses on the details of arranging a funeral rather than the feelings of grief due to their loss.
Sometimes this intellectualization can be perceived as mean because it may lack empathy or connection with another person's feelings. Other people may take this as meaning that the person doesn't care or even that their feelings are being ridiculed. For instance, someone not comfortable with emotions might comment “Why are you so upset?”
Some people protect themselves by trying to control others. They are trying to create a comfortable world for themselves. In the process they may cause a great deal of discomfort for others.
1) Anxiety. When people are anxious and fearful they may tend to avoid situations that cause anxiety. Sometimes they might try to control those close to them so as to avoid anxiety. For example, a husband who is afraid of being perceived as weak may be critical of his wife in front of others.
Or, a woman who is afraid of having anxiety or panic if she's alone may control her family's activities by wanting them to stay with her. What makes this type of situation more “mean” is when the anxiety is not acknowledged and the method of control is indirect such as using guilt: “You don't really care about me. You don't want to be around me.”
2) Need to Be Right. Some people try to protect their self image by being perfect. They might believe that living the perfect life proves their worth. Unfortunately, some may also have the need to point out to others their “perfectness” by disparaging others. This need to be right is controlling because it has the effect of silencing others when they might disagree. Therefore, the meanness is self-protective because it prevents opposing opinions from intruding into their view of themselves in the world.
3) Validation. You have probably heard the saying “Misery loves company.” For some people who are miserable, validating or confirming their negative view of the world helps them to feel less miserable because they can feel good about their assessment: “See, people are only out to take advantage of others.” They prove their view by being mean which is likely to generate meanness in return.
Many people who have been seriously hurt or traumatized may feel that others cannot be trusted and have developed methods of self-protection in order to survive. Some of those methods may be perceived as mean whereas other methods may actually be hurtful.
1) Withdrawal. A common way to deal with lack of trust in others is to withdraw from contact with others. Withdrawal can be complete social isolation, but since that is very difficult to achieve in a world where we must rely on others withdrawal is often more subtle. It may be avoidance of certain types of situations or interactions with others.
Sometimes this withdrawal may be perceived as mean by others because they don't understand the underlying fear causing the behavior. All they see is how the person acts. For instance, Ann who had been abused as a child and was in an abusive marriage turned down invitations to lunch by co-workers. She was afraid that her husband would become jealous of a friendship and fly into a violent rage. However, her co-workers didn't know the reason; they just thought she was unfriendly.
2) Identifying With the Abuser. Occasionally when someone has been abused they survive by identifying with the abuser and modeling their behavior. The purpose of this is that they see the abuser as powerful and they want to be in control so that no one can hurt them again. They don't trust other people based on their experience with abuse and believe that the only way they can protect themselves is to be powerful. However, this type of person can cause considerable harm to others because they have become an abuser, too.
3) Vulnerability. Another way abused people protect themselves is to avoid being vulnerable. They may do this by showing a “tough” front which may come across as rude or mean. Sometimes they believe that politeness demonstrates weakness and don't want to appear “weak” to others.
One of the most common reasons for meanness is due to emotional reaction. In such situations the person may just be reacting without thinking through the impact of their reaction. Therefore, often their focus may not be for the purpose of hurting someone else although it can be. Also, the reaction can sometimes be quite severe and harmful. Therefore, it is included more towards the malicious end of the continuum.
When someone is frustrated with a situation they may react in a manner to release tension. When this reaction is directed against someone else, it can be considered mean. For instance, a wife hits her shin against a piece of equipment in the garage and then yells at her husband and blames him for stuffing the garage full of equipment.
Unmanaged stress increases the physical symptoms of tension including muscular tension and a heightened state of agitation. Attempts to reduce this discomfort may result in mean behavior.
1) Displacement. Sometimes people inappropriately transfer their aggression to someone who did not cause their stress in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort. A classic example is a man who is reprimanded by his boss. He doesn't want to risk his job by defending himself. However, when he comes home he yells at his wife for some insignificant thing, who in turn yells at the kid, who then kicks the dog. They have all displaced their anger onto someone who is not the source of the anger but is a safer target.
2) Denial. Another way of attempting to reduce stress is through denial. However, the process of denial can potentially be mean to someone else. For example, a wife doesn't want to deal with her overspending problem and ignores the fact that they are going more into debt. Eventually their house is foreclosed on because she had not told her husband she hadn't been paying the bills.
Feelings of superiority can lead to mean behavior that may not always be deliberate but can be very hurtful to others.
Different from a superiority complex that stems from low self-esteem, some people truly believe they are superior to others. Sometimes this is due to being taught from a young age that being born into privilege or money or with certain qualities makes them better than other people. Some who believe this feel that they have an obligation to treat those lesser than them with respect. However, others may have disdain for those they perceive as less than them and treat them with a lack of understanding or compassion.
Some people who have achieved success early in life and easily may also develop this attitude of superiority. Due to their success they are often treated as if they are better than others and they may come to believe that they deserve to be treated this way by everyone. Therefore, they may be rude and demanding.
Finally, some people have a sense of superiority because of their beliefs. For instance, they may have a sense of moral superiority such as people discussed earlier who believe that total honesty, no matter how hurtful, is being genuine. Or, people who believe that they are always right so their opinion is more valid than others' opinions. Or, someone who rebels against the status quo or against being politically correct because they believe it is phoney. These people believe in their right to behave in ways that might hurt other people because they are doing it for morally superior reasons.
Being mean due to mental problems is nearer to the malicious end of the continuum because of the severity of the events that can occur. However, it is very important to recognize that most people who have mental illness are not mean or are probably more in the self-protective category if they are mean. This category is referring to those people who have severe mental disturbance causing them to be mean.
Although someone who has mental illness may be unintentional in their meanness, they can sometimes be quite hurtful. For example, a person with paranoid schizophrenia may become very anxious in certain situations and react with a great deal of anger against undeserving targets. Sometimes this can reach the level of physical aggression. I do need to reiterate, however, that most people with mental illness and even paranoid schizophrenia are not hurtful to others.
Other times people with mental illness can be mean indirectly. For instance, a woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder who demands that her family engage in excessive cleaning behavior such as showering before they come into the house. If they don't comply, she becomes very angry in her attempt to control them.
The worst of the meanness due to mental disturbance is psychopathy. A psychopath is usually quite intentional in their meanness and often malicious. This type of person may also derive pleasure from meanness and would therefore be in the next category as well.
A psychopath is often the most dangerous type of person because they can frequently be very charming and disarming. Often you may not know you are dealing with a psychopath until it is too late. Fortunately, the type of psychopath that you see in movies who is physically dangerous is more rare. However, psychopath refers to anyone who doesn't have a conscience and is willing to take advantage of other people for their own personal gain without feeling any regret. Therefore, they can cause a great deal of harm whether they are a salesperson or a politician or a criminal.
I placed the pleasure-seeking reason as the most intentional and malicious of the reasons for being mean because I find it most disturbing. Even though some of the behaviors may not be excessive, people who act mean based on this reason are doing so due to a self-centeredness and complete disregard of others. They seek to feel good at the expense of others. The following categories are based upon the type of reward they obtain by being mean.
Frequently people engage in mean behavior because of the attention they gain. Attention doesn't even have to be positive to be rewarding. We see this frequently in children who misbehave and are mean to others because they get noticed. Unfortunately, some people never grow up and continue to hurt others in adulthood for the purpose of obtaining notice.
Some people confuse respect with fear. They believe that if they mistreat someone they will gain respect. However, what they achieve is obedience based on fear. For example, a boss who threatens employees with termination for minor problems to keep them in line. Or, a parent who states “My children respect my authority because I'm willing to use the belt.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of being mean is obtaining power. Making someone else hurt or react gives them control over that person and allows them to feel more powerful. The attempt to gain power can be either direct and aggressive or it can be passive-aggressive. Sometimes the passive-aggressive is more difficult to recognize.
For example, someone makes a casual statement such as: “I'm surprised you handled that situation so well.” If the recipient reacts negatively to the hidden insult, the passive-aggressive person might state: “I don't understand why you are acting like this. All I did was give you a compliment.” At that point they have gained control over the recipient's emotional reaction which gives them power.
Some circumstances reward meanness with monetary gain. For instance, someone who profits from insider trading to the detriment of the shareholders of a company. Or, people who trash their competitor's products online to improve their own sales.
As you see from the above reasons, most people are mean due to some flaw in themselves or distortion in their thinking. Usually, unless you have done something significant, it is not about you. Notice that I say “something significant.” People who are mean will often find some minor thing that you have done so as to justify their meanness and blame you.
However, just because you don't deserve to be treated meanly, don't respond with mean behavior. That only validates and rewards the person who is mean by giving them permission to behave meanly in return. Attention and escalation of the conflict rewards the mean behavior because it allows them to place the blame on you.
As I wrote this article, I realized that another article that could be helpful would be describing ways to handle the behavior based upon these different reasons for meanness. Hopefully, I will be able to write that article soon. However, the main purpose of this article is to help people recognize that meanness is rewarded when the attack is successful. But it needs the recipient's participation to be successful. In other words, when the recipient feels bad about him or herself, the meanness has been successful.
Therefore, what you can do is to not participate. Recognize that unless you have done something that clearly hurts someone else, you are not the cause of the meanness. Don't base your self-worth on someone else's opinion or treatment of you. Don't feel bad about yourself when someone is mean to you. Instead, pity them or feel sad for them that their experience of the world is so negative and limited. They are likely to experience the consequences of their meanness and won't live very happy lives. Remember “Living well is the best revenge (George Herbert).” Focus on living your life and don't get involved in the pettiness of mean people.
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Dr. Monica Frank